Towards a strategic integration in East-Med and Gulf geopolitics

The dispute in the Gulf led Turkey’s military engagement in this region with a military base and presence, the dispute between Turkey and Greece brought Saudis and the UAE to the Eastern Mediterranean.

The end of the dispute between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain in the Gulf region at the beginning of January is more than a resolution of the problem between the two countries. Interestingly, the polarization of politics among the countries both in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Gulf, of which Turkey is a party in both of them, has increasingly led to the strengthening of military, political and energy cooperation between these two regions. It seems that as a by-product of this polarization in which Turkey and Qatar on the one hand and Greece, the Republic of Cyprus (RoC), Saudi Arabia and tha UAE are positioned on the other, a new geopolitics of the region is in the making. From a geopolitical point of view, the Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean are becoming an increasingly integrated region, and although these disputes erupting among U.S. allies are creating some problems; nevertheless, they help strengthen military, energy and diplomatic ties in these two regions, eventually serving the U.S. strategy.

The transformation in the U.S. strategy

As is known, the U.S. has been painstakingly trying to implement its pivot Asia strategy and to shift its strategic attention to the Pacific region for the past decade. At this point, the Middle East region stands out, where the U.S. has a significant military presence and where it frequently engages in military intervention/operations, intelligence, proxy war, armed drone operations and high profile assassinations. As told in the latest Rand Corporation report titled “Implementing Restraint,” the U.S. decision making circles are seriously rethinking a strategy of restraint in which “the United States would ... reduce the size of its military and forward military presence, and end or renegotiate some of its security commitments.”

In this context, the heavy military presence of the United States in the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and the Gulf region, where it has intervened the most and has been involved in military engagements, becomes more debatable. It is important to remember that the policy of avoiding the use of military force and reducing the military presence in troubled areas began during the Obama era, and that the United States has not conducted any extensive military intervention since the 2011 UN sanctioned Libyan intervention. Obama decided to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and avoided intervention in Syria despite allegations of chemical weapons use. Instead, he adopted a policy “leading from behind,” which was sharply criticized by domestic interventionalists. When Trump took over, he displayed a show of force and launched a missile strike on Syria, but there was no other intervention. He even boasted about it as he left the office. For some time now, a lively debate has been ongoing about withdrawing from the Middle East in the U.S. decision-making circles. However, withdrawal, meaning a reduction in military presence and avoiding intervention, brings other accompanying problems for the US. Among these are the increased influence of actors such as China and Russia in the region, the difficulty of pressuring Iran and maintaining Israel’s security. For this reason, a total withdrawal is not on the agenda at the moment, but one certain point is that the U.S. wants its allies in the region to take on more responsibility. In order to achieve this, issues among the countries in the region have to be solved.

Dimensions of transformation

There are several dimensions to the transformation we are going through in the Greater Middle East region, and they complete each other. The first one of these is that some of the countries in the region normalize their relations with Israel. The fact that the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco established diplomatic relations with Israel, officializing their unofficial relations, enabled Israel some psychological superiority. Certain other countries may follow.

The Saudi bloc's normalization of relations with Qatar by agreeing to end the blockade has become the second step in this transformation. After three and a half years of blockade, Qatar did not back down and the embargo was lifted. This development was defined by some commentators as Saudi preparation for Biden, Trump clearing the field for Biden, creating the platform for a new move against Iran or economic difficulties. First of all, it should be stated that Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and his team have made great efforts to achieve this, but this policy is not confined to Trump administration’s aspirations. After all, this spat in the Gulf region had gone on for too long. This dispute had to be terminated, both to strengthen Israel’s position and to solidify the anti-Iranian bloc.

Militarization in the East Mediterranean

The third step of this transformation was the integration of the Gulf region and the Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics, and the growing ties between the U.S. allies in these two regions in military, political and economic/energy fields. The disagreement Turkey experienced with Greece and the RoC in the Eastern Mediterranean first made France and the EU become involved, then, over time Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This led to the strengthening of Western-oriented military involvement and presence in this region. In the process, Greece and the RoC have forged closer ties with Israel and Egypt. 

Consequently, the island of Cyprus became more militarized with Turkey decided to send armed drones there, and the RoC increased its military ties other countries and defense spending. Egypt has upgraded particularly its naval forces. Greece have swiftly increased its military spending and made a huge deal with France to purchase Rafale fighter jets. Meanwhile, Germany and France developed military ties with Israel, in a way that has never been seen before with Germany and France participated in the military exercises in Israel and the French fighters joined the exercises carried out in Israel’s Negev desert in 2017. Also, Israel has come up with the idea of a railway from their country to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, which would connect the Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean through a new railroad line.

Greece rediscovers its position

It is obvious that the rivalry with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean provided Greece an upper hand and, Athens was adept at taking advantage of Turkey’s self-imposed strategic isolation. Athens, already an EU member, was quick to develop its diplomatic/military ties with Israel, almost immidiately after Turkey broke its relations with Israel after 2011, with Egypt after 2013, as well as with  the U.S. and the Gulf states after 2017. While Turkey lost friends, Greece made new friends and strengthened its old friendships. Turkey's decision to support Qatar in the Gulf dispute, in return triggered Saudi Arabia and the UAE to side with Greece and the RoC, thus causing the formation of an unprecedented polarization which criss crossed the previously two separate regions. 
Some Greek commentators, contrary to the perception in Turkey, have attributed Greece’s growing ties with the Middle East and Gulf countries to the lack of strong backing of Brussels in defending Greece against Turkey. But Greece’s growing military cooperation with the Gulf has deeper dimensions. For instance, after a drone strike on Saudi Arabia's oil facilities from Yemen in September 2019, Greece offered the Saudi’s to deploy their Patriot batteries. This was a somewhat strange offer because Saudi Arabia could have very well obtained them from the U.S. During the Greek Foreign Minister’s visit in Washington, it was understood that the U.S. State Department had encouraged Athens to give Patriots to the Saudis. 

Since 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been participating in joint naval exercises with Greece and the RoC. Moreover, even after the Saudis declared their intention to improve relations with Turkey, they sent their F-15 fighter jets to Crete. Meanwhile, the UAE continued its strategic cooperation with the RoC signing a memorandum of understanding to enhance their defence cooperation on January 12, after the end of the dispute with Qatar, and there has been heavy diplomatic traffic between both Athens and the RoC and the Gulf states. 

A new geopolitical axis

What was initially seen as a polarization with Turkey and Qatar on one side and Greece, the RoC, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other side, has gradually been turning into a closely knit strategic configuration. As a consequence, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE having a military extension in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Greece's supplying Patriot batteries to the Gulf, Turkey is setting up a military base in Qatar and having a wider military presence in this country all first time developments in their respected regions. It should also be reminded that all the parties to the seemingly superficial disputes are either NATO members and US allies.  

At this point, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum was declared in January 2020, becoming another platform that brought these countries plus Jordan together, although the project of building a pipeline to Europe is unrealistic in terms of current energy prices. The UAE was included as an observer, and Israel declared that it wants to see Turkey as a member as well.

In this context, two developments seem to contribute to the ongoing geopolitical transformation. The first is Ankara’s decision to ease tensions with Greece. There is of course the issue of EU sanctions, and Turkey’s efforts to convince Brussels which forced Ankara to start exploratory meetings with Athens but Turkey’s move will eventually clear the way for further strategic cooperation between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf. Second, the reconciliation between Qatar and the Saudi bloc has created an opportunity to strengthen ties between the two sea basins. In the first phase, both the Erdoğan administration and the Saudis began to send warm messages to each other. Qatar also said it could act as a mediator to improve relations. Therefore, relations between the Gulf and Turkey can be expected to develop further from now on.

It would not be surprising in terms of the AKP pragmatism to see Turkey's relations with Israel and Egypt normalize in this process. Erdoğan declared recently that Turkey wants to mend the broken relations with Israel. Such a development would complete the missing link between the Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean.

The rise of tensions and spat among U.S. allies in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf may eventually turn into a strategic gain for the U.S. The dispute in the Gulf led Turkey’s military engagement in this region with a military base and presence, the dispute between Turkey and Greece brought Saudis and the UAE to the Eastern Mediterranean. The increasing militarization, high defense spending and military fortification is critical considering that this area lies on China's One Belt One Road line. It will also serve the reduction of the U.S. military burden in the region in the future defense posture. Another implication is that at the end of this process the anti-Iranian front will strengthen. This new status quo will also serve better Israel’s security. As for the AKP government, this strategic considerations might give the AKP government a greater leverage in its dealings with the Biden administration.